Tag Archives: Charles Wesley

Unexpectedly: The Holy Spirit around the Globe

I received what was called a local preacher’s license in 1952, when I was only 17 years old. That means I have been at this business of preaching for 68 years. I have been the pastor of nine local churches and the organizing pastor of three of those nine. You may wonder why I’m sharing that…and you may consider it a bit boastful. Not so, not so at all. I share it as a part of a confession. The question really is, what sort of church did I plant?

Our scripture lesson – Acts 2:1-14, 42-47–tells the story of the first church plant in Christian history.  At first blush, that certainly was not a good way to start a church. There was the disturbance of a roaring wind that would drown out any speaking. Then uneducated people speaking in languages they had never heard. And not only a roaring wind, and strange speaking, but what was described as “tongues of fire” resting on each of them.

Unbridled excitement and strange acting. What a way to start a church! The question has to be, what was happening here, anyway?  And that is what my sermon is all about: what was happening here?Let’s think about it.

The first is this: God came unexpectedly, which of course is nothing new. God seems to make it a habit of sneaking up on the human race. Appearing unrepentantly, when no one is looking or knows what is going on, God is in their midst.

The kind of thing that happened at Pentecost had happened before. Moses was out in the field alone, taking care of his father-in-law’s flock. And there it was – a burning bush, and a voice coming out of the bush, and Moses was called to lead God’s children out of Egyptian bondage.

And now, here at Pentecost, is this little band of frightened disciples whose leader has gone off and left them; they are stunned, confused, and unable to figure out what to do. The only instruction they had was, “stay, just stay in Jerusalem, until you receive the gift the Father has promised.” What gift, they must have wondered! Then along comes God unexpectedly when they were not even looking.

Friends, I remind you: that kind of God action has not ceased. I have seen dramatic witnesses of it.  One of the joys of my life was to chair the Evangelism Committee of the World Methodist Council for 20 years. This gave me opportunity to travel the world and meet extraordinary Christians. Two of those were Nelson Mandela and Stanley Mogoba. You know about Mandela, the man whose life and witness led to breaking the back of that awful oppressive system of apartheid. But you probably have not heard of Stanley Mogoba. He was the first Black person to be the presiding bishop of the Methodist Church of South Africa.

About the time Nelson Mandela was sent to prison, Stanley met with a group of angry students and sought to dissuade them from violent demonstration. Just for that – trying to avert violence – he was arrested and imprisoned for six years on the notorious Robben Island.  Mandela was already in prison there. He and Mogoba became friends there in prison.

One day someone pushed a religious tract under Mogoba’s cell door. Parenthetically, don’t ever forget: most people become Christian not by big events, but by relationship and simple actions like a person putting a tract beneath a prison cell door. By reading that little tract and responding to the Holy Spirit, Mogoba became a Christian. He quoted the words of Charles Wesley’s hymn to describe his experience:

“Thine eye diffused a quickening ray
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
my chains fell off; my heart was free,
I rose, went forth and followed thee.”

God showed up, in a prison and in a simple gospel tract, and something unexpected happened. A person who was to lead the Methodist movement in South Africa was converted.

Are you listening? God who came unexpectedly at Pentecost continues to show up today…in prisons, on the streets, in person, in the Church.

Yes, in the Church. And that leads to the second thing I would say. Pentecost was a missionary event. Jesus made it clear that he would send the Holy Spirit to empower us for ministry. Listen to Acts l:8: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

It shouldn’t surprise us, friends, when the Holy Spirit comes roaring through our lives and our communities; change will happen, people will be called to minister. People who have never known Jesus before will come to the altar to praise him.

How and why? Because God is a missionary God, and the Holy Spirit is the chief evangelist. Hold that tightly in your mind. The Holy Spirit has the power to create joy in the midst of sorrow and dancing in place of mourning. The Holy Spirit has the power to bring healing for our anguish and rescue life from the jaws of death. The Holy Spirit of God signals a time of restoration, awakening, and revival.

Pentecost was a missionary event. Remember, I asked you to hold tightly in your mind. The Holy Spirit is the chief evangelist. I believe revival is coming, because I believe the Holy Spirit is alive and active in our day, and we are moving toward a global Methodist church, an orthodox, evangelical, Wesleyan, Methodist Church.

We have been in a tumultuous time, contending with a mysterious virus; then came massive and widespread demonstrations calling us to racial justice. Our nation is politically divided, and hatred is blatantly present across the land. At the same time, we are also struggling with a painful divide in our United Methodist Church. It is a tough, heavy time.  Discussion of separation is rampant, and I do believe separation is coming. Please hear me now. Separation doesn’t have to be bitter and angry. It can be redemptive. In fact, I believe it is going to be redemptive. That was signaled in a Holy Spirit event on December 17, 2019.  Leaders from different perspectives of the church – from the most liberal to the most conservative – signed a “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation.” I believe that if we had not had to cancel the General Conference that was to happen in May, that protocol would have passed and we would be on our way to a new global Methodist church.

People who know me and my history in the United Methodist Church are sometimes surprised about my position on some issues and my confidence that revival is coming. Some are surprised that I now believe separation is essential and can be redemptive. For decades, I have worked as hard as any lay person, minister, bishop or other leader in the church to preserve unity as we have struggled. So, let me share how I have come through the struggle to the place I am now in. The bishops called a special session of the General Conference in 2019 because the denomination was on the verge of implosion. We traditionalists prevailed at that General Conference in preserving the authority of Scripture. However, when we had done that by standard procedural vote, the conference deteriorated into a shouting match of anger, hateful accusations, and debate. I left the conference feeling with the psalmist, “Why are you cast down, O my soul?”

That was my state, when two weeks later I went to Cuba. I had visited Cuba twice before, and I knew revival was taking place, but I was not prepared for the robust power of the Holy Spirit being demonstrated in the church there. My time there was redemptive. It was a spiritual time of recovery in the wake of the General Conference experience.

The Church in Cuba is not affiliated with the UMC, it is the Methodist Church of Cuba. Bishop Pereira is a dynamic, Spirit-filled, Spirited-guided leader. Normally he would have attended our special General Conference, but he was needed at home. The communist government was seeking to change the legal definition of marriage. The government wanted to change that to simply a union between two persons. The bishop of the Methodist Church of Cuba had stayed in his country to lead his church in opposing what the government was proposing.  I had come from a meeting in which I and others opposed a part of our church, including many bishops, seeking to do what would have resulted in the same thing the Cuban government was seeking to do. It was the church in Cuba, not the government, that prevailed.

Our missionary God has sent his primary evangelist, the Holy Spirit whose power cannot be denied. I’m going back to Cuba as soon as Covid will allow. I want to be encouraged by the hundreds of little bands of Christians that are being formed every year. The government will not allow the building of churches. So these little groups meet in homes, house churches being established all over. And one day, that government will discover that Holy Spirit power is more dynamic than anything they can design and impose on the people.

In Havana, there is a statue of the Risen Christ towering over the city, almost as high as the famous Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro. Not far from that statue is Che Guevara’s house, the companion of Castro as he seized leadership of Cuba in 1959.

Our small group shared communion at the feet of Christ, literally, as we gathered at the base of the statue on the morning we were leaving Cuba. There we were at the feet of Jesus, with his shadow falling over the city. When we took the bread and wine, we knew and proclaimed who is Lord, and that one day, he will claim the kingdoms of this world as his own.

More than ever, I believe that Holy Spirit revival is coming, and I pray regularly the prayer we pray during our Walk to Emmaus weekends:

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of Thy faithful and kindle in them the fire of Thy love. Send forth Thy Spirit and they shall be created, and You shalt renew the face of the earth. Amen.

Featured image courtesy Hasan Almasi for Unsplash.

Elizabeth Glass Turner ~ What Is A Wesleyan Theology of Sanctification?

What comes to mind when you think of the word “sanctification”?

If you’re online trying to find a local mechanic to align your tires and somehow ended here, let’s back up.

Lots of people are atheists or agnostics or follow any number of religions. Christians are theists – we believe in God. In particular, whether we’re Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Coptic, or another tradition, Christians believe that God in God’s nature is Trinity: three persons, one God. Historic language for this is Father, Son, Holy Spirit, not because two/thirds of God is male, but because to approach God is to discover the tightly knit interconnectedness of how three persons relate in one unity. I promise this connects to the question, “what is the Wesleyan theology of sanctification?” Also, your tires might need rotated or balanced, too.

Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Coptic and other Christians also believe in the Incarnation: the second person of the Trinity, like the Gospel of John tells us, became flesh. The Word became flesh, and dwelled among us, or as Eugene Peterson poetically painted, the Word “moved into the neighborhood.”

Why the “Word became flesh” through the Incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ is where you begin to find some different emphases among Christian traditions. For centuries, some Eastern Orthodox believers have been universalists, believing eventually everyone will have full union with God in the afterlife. Western Christianity (St. Augustine from Africa, the eventual Roman Catholic Church, and many Protestants) has always placed focus on humanity’s tendency to self-destruct. Curved inward with disordered love of self over God and neighbor, humans have repeatedly chosen to reject God’s love in favor of self-will. (Sometimes this is referred to as “original sin” or as “sin” in general.) Humans continually fall short of the profound goodness and love of God; Jesus moved into the neighborhood, so to speak, to redeem the situation, to show us what God looks like with skin on, and to bring new life and hope to people in need of both. The Word became flesh to bridge the gap between the Creator and the creation.

Yes, you say, having finally found the right tire place on Google maps, but what of the Holy Spirit? What about “Wesleyan” and what do you mean by sanctification? These are great questions to ask in or out of a mechanic’s shop, and the longer you wait while your car is being worked on, the more you’ll need the Holy Spirit and sanctification. Or, put another away, the longer you wait, the more opportunity for the Holy Spirit to work sanctification of your soul after you’ve flipped through an old People and watched the clock practically go backwards.

The Holy Spirit pours out the power of God in a variety of ways that always reveal Christ, point to Christ, and empower believers with the love and power of Christ. Christians may point to the Holy Spirit inspiring the formation of scriptural texts or the Holy Spirit being active in varying practices of ordination (the setting aside of specially called, trained, anointed ministers). Some believers affirm the Holy Spirit’s activity in the Eucharist or Mystery or Holy Communion, transforming simple bread and wine or juice literally (if you’re Catholic) or mystically into a grace-filled experience of the body of Christ. Within these various traditions also lies a very real, often impostered, frequently misunderstood reality. The Holy Spirit continues today to surprise us in tire stores or churches or huts around the world with supernatural phenomena inexplicable solely through reductionist materialist scientific inquiry – healing, signs, strange things we can’t comprehend but that always, only reveal Christ and point to Christ and the invisible reality that is as real as a chipped coffee mug next to a stale-smelling Keurig machine. To greater and lesser degrees, and through a variety of means, believers also affirm that the Holy Spirit works to transform our outer behavior and our inner lives and loves so that we aren’t stuck in the same self-destruct patterns forever.

And this is where we intersect the original question: what is a Wesleyan theology of sanctification? Sorry, we’re out of time, we’ll have to look at that later.

Kidding! Kind of. There’s a lot to say and we’ve already condensed 2,000 years of church history and Trinitarian theology in ways that will have pastors, priests, and especially academics clearing their throats and raising their eyebrows and wanting to clarify or redefine everything I just said.

Wesleyan Methodists, or Wesleyans, or Methodists, are a group of Protestant Christians with a particular set of theological emphases from English brothers John and Charles Wesley, who lived in the 1700’s. “Wesleyan” derives from their name, obviously, and “Methodist” began as an insult because of their persnickety adherence to, yes, methods. While I say Wesleyan Methodism sprang up because of two brothers, if you read a basic biography you’ll soon see we wouldn’t have it today without their remarkable mom, Susanna.

Though John and Charles started what would become this movement, the seeds of Methodism grew while they were at Oxford University. Though they had sisters, women weren’t allowed admission at Oxford at the time, so while the mechanic comes over to tell you that instead of alignment, you need four new tires, you can sit and muse about how the movement might have looked had the Wesley sisters been allowed to attend Oxford.

The Wesley kids primarily were raised by their mom, but their father was a clergyman in the Church of England, which matters but we won’t get into why right now. The main point is that the Church of England at the time was nothing to write home about; and the brothers’ zeal for spiritual growth and formation was in stark contrast to the snoozing pulpits of polite civic religion of their day. Thus they were given the snarky brand of being overexcited “Methodists.”

The notion of sanctification doesn’t belong to one Christian tradition; it doesn’t belong solely to Wesleyan Methodists. You can find it in different terminology scattered across church history, through various traditions, and around the globe. But the Wesleyan Methodists were really organized about focusing on it, pursuing it, and living it individually and in community. The impact on real daily lives was astonishing. Child labor was confronted, illiteracy tackled. John Wesley’s most popular writing during his lifetime wasn’t his pile of sermons, it was his little practical, common-sense pamphlet on health, 250 years before Web MD. There were many very tangible outcomes to something that could sound abstract or removed from real life – sanctification and holiness. But for the Wesleys, sanctification was never about traveling to a remote cave to get away from the mundane or insidious. It was about real life, today, given all the less than ideal circumstances that come our way.

“Sanctus” means holy; sanctification simply refers to being made holy. We struggle though with how to define holy: you might say sacred or set apart or pristine or consecrated. Christians call God “holy,” but what do we really mean by that? Pure? Transcendent? Other-than? Monty Python delightfully skewered the weight and the difficulty of applying the word in Monty Python and the Holy Grail in a comedic scene about divine commands on how to use the “holy hand grenade.” Obviously, you can agree to call any object holy or sacred but that doesn’t make it so even if you treat it like it is. You may ask your mechanic if she’s using the ancient holy wrench on your car to be charged this much for new tires, and she may say, “yes, this here is my holy wrench,” waving it around while both of you know there’s nothing holy about this grimy dented wrench or her impulse to whack you with it or your impulse to be rude and impatient.

Holiness must be derived from something holy in and of itself. Where God breaks in, there is holiness. We don’t strain and strive to become our version of holy – John Wesley tried that, it didn’t go well. Painting a hammer gold and calling it holy doesn’t make it holy.

But as we follow Jesus, we open space to pursue and receive the anointing of the Holy Spirit, to be transformed so that, while you are still fully you, you are also more like Jesus in your thinking, will, desires, and choices.

Different traditions within Christianity describe a couple of odd phrases: imputed and imparted righteousness. To impute righteousness is to ascribe or assign righteousness to something that doesn’t have it inherently (rather like the “holy hand grenade”). It’s a position you occupy whether or not you bear the reality within yourself. Say a country with a monarchy has a revolution and they want to install a new king or queen. With a great deal of ceremony and ritual, they name someone as monarch who may have no royal family heritage. (That’s how monarchies began. “He is king now.” “But five seconds ago – ” “HE IS KING NOW.” “Long live the king!”) Everyone agrees to that position while knowing that one person’s DNA is not inherently set apart as “royal.” You are assigning a reality onto something.

To impart righteousness is to give righteousness; imparted righteousness is given and received in a meaningful way so that you are not just assigning a position or title or state of being. Righteousness is actually grown into; it is lived out. Say a kid starts taking vocal lessons and is fairly mediocre. But as they internalize their training and mimic the habits and disciplines of their teacher, their skills genuinely change and improve. Someone who begins as a novice singer transforms into a skilled vocalist. In that scenario, a teacher is imparting skill, passion, discipline, advice, correction, and affirmation.

Imagine then if the teacher could reach into their own throat and share a portion of the clarity of their tone, their perfect pitch, their love of music, and infuse their student with those qualities. That is imparted righteousness. It’s a transcendent music teacher not only demonstrating but sharing their own qualities with the student, as the student also exercises their will to show up for lessons, practice at home, and hone a love of singing.

And that – in part, please don’t email nasty remarks about how I’ve butchered a beautiful tradition – is what a Wesleyan theology of sanctification is: it is the belief, practice, discipline, and lifestyle of showing up to voice lessons with a desire to sing like our Divine Virtuoso, and our Cosmic Music Teacher sharing a portion of their own tone, pitch, technique, power, and passion back with us, so that whether or not we occasionally croak, crack, or drop a word, our intent is complete harmony with the Master Vocalist: the aim of perfect love.

More can be said about the nuts and bolts of this pursuit: the value of practicing this together in Wesley’s discipleship bands; the tangible way this works out in pursuit of justice where there is discordant exploitation, poverty, and abuse; the means of grace as a kind of practicing the scales and showing up for lessons; Scripture as a pitch pipe that reveals and tunes.

Your tires are finally ready, by the way. And where ugly attitudes or impatience or self-centeredness threaten to lead you off-key, leaning into the voice of Jesus Christ happens when, with humility, you can see your tired mechanic, make eye contact, smile, love her, and ask her how you can pray for her today. That is the Jesus way; that is what we mean by holy.

Jeff Rudy ~ Return! A Sermon on the Jubilee Year

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. 

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’”And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way. – Luke 4:14-30 (NRSV) 

What happened in this gospel story? Jesus stands up to read the passage for the day and then proceeds to proclaim a brief word on that passage. However, the hometown crowd didn’t care much for what Jesus, a young man they watched grow up, had to say about it. It was a message of justice, hope, and healing for the people who were not of their town or politics or religion or race. After some time away, Jesus returned home just like the Jubilee year instructed, and he announced that the Jubilee year had begun. This was supposed to be a celebratory declaration! Good news for the poor, liberty for the enslaved and oppressed, healing for the sick – the year of the Lord’s favor. “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Here we go!  

And so, the Jubilee became central to Jesus’ identity and mission – to sound and to bring the good news through his words and through his deeds. When the Jubilee Year was prescribed in Leviticus 25 and when it was alluded to later in the prophets, it was truly good news for the people and their children, for it brought a promise of a new start, of freedom.  

In the tribal culture in which the ancient world operated, whenever someone fell into abject poverty, they had no welfare system, no unemployment office, no social security benefits, no insurance, no banks to loan money. Therefore, people would sell themselves into slavery just to be able to stay alive. It was a normal part of the culture, yet right there in Leviticus, we see a more graceful way, a merciful and redeeming way of caring for those than the rest of the world would treat them. (You see, Leviticus isn’t just a boring book of codes about what to do and what not to do!)  

The people of God were called to exude that more gracious and merciful identity and action all the time. As the promise to Abram said, they were blessed to be a blessing; and as the prophets said later, they were to be “a light to the Gentiles.” Through the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings, God revealed a special concern for immigrants, widows, and orphans. Though the rest of the world would see these as the weakest and mistreat them, it should not be so among God’s covenant people!  

And then there would be even more grace in the restart promised every 50 years, when everyone was given a reset. It was a time for all to return home, to set free those who were in bondage, to cancel debts, to give the land some rest, and to return the land back to the family to whom it originally belonged. Do you see this constant reference to “returning”? It reminds me of a certain parable about a return home. 

I’m talking about the story in which Jesus tells of the father with two sons in Luke 15. It illustrates well these elements of the tribal culture and the Jubilee promise offered in contrast with it – a younger son wastes the freedom and resources entrusted to him and an elder son fails to realize the freedom he already has. And yet even having failed to truly live into the freedom so generously given to them, there remains a party to welcome them home – both of them. Both of them are invited to the party, just like the Jubilee year had prescribed. The younger son, as you might remember, had gone to a far-off land and ran out of resources. He had to hire himself out, to put himself in bondage, to an oppressing overlord. He finds himself at rock bottom. When he was at rock bottom, he remembers the grace at home. So he decides merely to ask for forgiveness and to become a slave for his father instead, which would’ve been grace enough.  

But he gets more than that. He returns home and gets the freedom of Jubilee. His sonship had been returned back to him – the father put a ring on his finger and a robe on him to convey this. And then, the father has shoes put back on his feet. The shoes on his feet show that his freedom is returned. We ought not to miss the fact that this was a risky move by the father, but it was a move that speaks to the Jubilee and its restoration. Sometimes I wonder what happened on those next days after the younger son comes back. Will the elder swallow his pride and relinquish his unforgiveness and join the Jubilee, too? How will the younger son adjust to these new shoes? How will he respond to this grace that he really didn’t expect?  

And what about us? The church? What might a return look like for us? It seems clear that we need a moment in which we truly “come to our senses” and start making plans for a return. 

Much of the church is teetering on the line of relevancy in the modern world. What we’ve often done is to think that the only way to survive is to talk about worship style or language, to have better events that will entertain more people, or to have the best facilities that are state-of-the-art – that these are what will “attract” young people. But they only matter in a secondary sense. These peripherals only matter insofar as they contribute to a church who understands and lives into its identity and its strengths for mission and ministry. If a church can’t do that, no matter how technically perfect our worship might be, in God’s view, we’re fighting over pig slop. If we’re not truly making a difference in the lives of people and the community, then we’re just a popular group that will one day be forgotten. No matter how flawless our blueprints or formidable these walls are, in the kingdom view, if they’re not for the sort of mission Jesus’ life was all about, then they are built on sand and will fall when any serious wave hits.  

Then there’s my denominational family, The United Methodist Church, which faces many challenging realities. The UMC in the United States has faced declining numbers every year since the merger in 1968 took place. What might a return for our tradition look like? If we’re on the brink of drastic change, how can we make the most of it?  

Do you know what made Methodism flourish and grow into a sustainable movement? As much as I love a hearty potluck meal, that wasn’t it. And fundraising didn’t make Methodism take off. Instead, there were two central activities that made Methodism truly become a movement with the promise of fruitfulness:

  1. They got together in small groups and asked one another a set of questions that centered on this overarching question: “How is it with your soul?” In that setting they would search the Scriptures together, they would pray, and they would ask difficult questions to prompt one another toward growing in holiness, in God’s grace. Kevin Watson writes at length about this in The Class Meeting, speaking of how this was the way in which the early Methodists were “watching over one another in love.” 
  2. They cared for their hurting neighbors and reached out to those that the rest of the comfortable world preferred to forget – they preached and gave good news for the poor. They made a difference in their world through mission – they visited prisoners, they visited the sick and fought for the cause of healthcare at a systematic level, especially for the most vulnerable of their society. They did things like tutoring children who were struggling in school, they feed the hungry, and they preached “the glad tidings of salvation” to the common folks, who when they saw they were actually cared for in body realized: “You know what? Maybe these Methodists have something to say that is worth listening to.”  

Furthermore, they did these things not haphazardly or aimlessly or in some sort of generic sense, but they were methodical about all this – that’s why they were called Methodists. They went all the way back to their roots, the roots of Christianity, all the way back to Jesus’ mission.  

But the movement transformed into an institution. Over time, the membrane of the living organism calcified into an impenetrable wall that is now on the brink of fracturing. Many of us have ceased to be part of a movement, and when facing decline, we’ve hired ourselves out. We have become in bondage and enslaved to other empires, realities, and ideals – and they’re not all tangible things – the comfort zones of similarity, the security of nationalism, the allure and sweetness and satisfaction of consumerism – the things that are “just for us” or help us pay the bills. Keep in mind that this was the mentality of the younger son when he departed – looking out for himself and his wishes and to make sure he had enough money to enjoy whatever he wanted.  

Might we come to our senses about the pig food we’ve grown content to feed upon and wake up to the promise of the feast and fruitfulness of our foremothers and forefathers? For there we just might find the sort of Jubilee that inspired Charles Wesley to write: 

Ye who have sold for nought your heritage above 
shall have it back unbought, the gift of Jesus’ love: 
The year of Jubilee is come! The year of Jubilee is come! 

Return, ye ransomed sinners, home. 

The gospel trumpet hear, the news of heavenly grace; 
and saved from earth, appear before your Savior’s face: 
The year of Jubilee is come! The year of Jubilee is come! 
Return, ye ransomed sinners, home. 

The year of Jubilee is come! The year of Jubilee is come! 

Return, ye ransomed sinners, home! 

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Sing Faith Loudly

If you have spent time in a Methodist/Wesleyan denomination, chances are you have recited a historic creed at some point during a worship service. Perhaps you memorized one as a child. Creeds are valuable for centering our apostolic faith. 

Reciting a creed out loud and communally is a confessional act. We confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. We confess our belief in the Trinity. We speak our beliefs. Even rote recitation can help form our unconscious thoughts. 

At the same time, our Wesleyan heritage was born in part through a theology that was sung. Charles Wesley wrote moving hymns full of vivid imagery and biblical allusions. Part of witness is not only reciting beliefs but also singing our proclamation about the nature of God and the nature of reality. 

Faith-sharing encompasses witness beyond the recitation of creeds or verbal witness or rigorous preaching, valuable cornerstones of the Protestant reformation. 

But we all sing. We sing and play instruments, we paint and sketch, we enact and perform, and all of these are triumphant expressions of the truth of our faith. We need not look further than Handel’s Messiah or the artwork of Makoto Fujimura to find that composed chords and pigment on canvas can declare the glory of God. 

One time someone compared this famous film scene from Casablanca to the nature of communal worship. Sometimes we don’t need to talk at the darkness: sometimes we need to outsing it. 


“And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Colossians 3:17) 

Brian Yeich ~The Lost Metric of Testimony

The church seems to be obsessed with numbers. We account for professions of faith, baptisms, membership and worship attendance, and these statistics for church health point to a crisis in the present and increasingly dismal view of the future. We seem to count everything. Even the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, made sure that every Methodist could be counted. However, it is my conviction that we have lost a “metric” that the church has relied upon for centuries, not only to demonstrate the health of the community, but to paint a vision of what the Christian life should be. We have lost the metric of testimony.

In his book, Narrative of Many Surprising Conversions, Jonathan Edwards observes, “There is no one thing that I know of that God has made such a means of promoting his work amongst us, as the news of others’ conversion…”1 On the cusp of the Great Awakening, Edwards observed how God was using the stories of people’s conversions to inspire and cast a vision for new life among those where were not yet awakened. As powerful as the Gospel is, the stories of those who have encountered the living God revealed in the Gospel story are also used by the Holy Spirit to encourage, enlighten and inspire people to a living faith in Jesus.

Not only do the stories of people’s conversions inspire, as Edwards suggests, but also the stories of overcoming struggle, of the ups and downs of life. When new believers or even non-believers can see how God is working through the lives of disciples, they catch a vision for what God might do in their own lives.

Why does testimony seem to be ignored as a valid metric in our day? Have we lost the metric because God is not at work? Have we lost the metric because we are not pursuing the least, last and lost in our communities?

Metrics Today

Most denominations today rely on metrics such as professions of faith, baptisms, attendance, and membership to gauge the health of their congregations. It is likely that these metrics are favored because they are relatively easy to collect and they do provide some indication of how a congregation is doing. However, these numbers can be far from encouraging. Worship attendance across denominations, according to most sources, indicates that fewer people are gathering in our places of worship each week than in years past. Professions of faith are down in many denominations including those that would identify as evangelical. In my denomination, it has become standard practice for conferences to require churches to enter data on a regular basis in a “dashboard” that tracks these metrics and others. While these numbers can provide some insights into what is happening in the life of a local church, they can also have a negative impact. Focusing on “getting people in the pews” can be an unhealthy focus for pastors and congregations. 

Several years ago I was engaged in leading a church re-start. In the first year of our efforts, I was approached by a former denominational leader and encouraged to “poach” from another, struggling congregation so that we could more quickly achieve the critical mass needed to sustain the church. I have been tempted in my ministry to play the numbers game and have many times succumbed to that temptation. However, the words of this leader shocked me into a realization about metrics. A focus on numbers may tempt us to simply rearrange the deck chairs on a sinking ship rather than seeking to reach people who have not heard or had the opportunity to respond to the Gospel.

Even though we say, each of those numbers represents a person,” I believe it is difficult to keep our focus when the numbers are the metric. Metrics like professions of faith or conversions, baptisms, or membership tell us something about the state of the congregation. In fact, if the church is alive and healthy, those numbers should reflect that reality. But while these numbers tell us something and they do represent people, we don’t hear the stories through the numbers. The fact is that numbers cannot tell the story of transformation in the lives of human beings. Yes, baptisms and professions of faith are significant moments in that transformation, but those numbers are only a waypoint on the person’s journey.

So, why does testimony seem to be ignored as a valid metric in our day? It may be because of the ease of counting worship attendance and baptisms as compared to collecting the stories of transformation among a congregation. And while the value of such stories may be recognized, that is not the data that is being most sought by denominational leaders. This is an unfortunate break from those who have gone before us.

Metrics in Early Methodism

As the founders of the Methodist movement, John and Charles Wesley knew the power of people’s stories. In fact, they solicited the conversion stories of Methodists, many of which were published. Bruce Hindmarsh notes that these written narratives were expressed in a person’s own words soon after their experience of conversion and typically shared with others in a band meeting.2  The Wesleys saw the same value of testimony and narrative that Edwards observed on his side of the Atlantic. When people read the story of ordinary people encountering an extraordinary God, a hunger and thirst were stirred up and many of those hearers of the story came to saving faith in Jesus Christ. These were not cute, sentimental Facebook posts but were raw stories filled with the challenges and obstacles to faith as well as the triumphs.

Hannah Hancock wrote to Charles Wesley about hearing John preach on Romans 6:23 (the wages of sin is death). She describes the conviction she experienced and shared that she, “had sweet communion with God for two months…” However, she also shared the challenges which soon cropped up when she wrote, “then the enemy came in as a flood upon me telling me I was in a delusion.”  It could be comforting to know that the challenges they were experiencing were not unusual, nor were they insurmountable through the power of the Holy Spirit. Without such a testimony, a person could continue wallowing in self-doubt and perhaps even lose their faith.

Many of these conversion stories made their way into the Arminian Magazine, a publication started by John Wesley in 1778 to encourage and inform the Methodist movement. In addition, Wesley published the stories of lay preachers whom God had raised up as leaders in the movement. While these published stories are significant, it seems more significant that people were encouraged to share their stories in class meetings and bands. It was in the context of community that the “metric of testimony” impacted the movement. As persons shared their stories and listened to the stories of others, God also spoke into their lives by his Spirit and people were empowered to, “work out [their] own salvation with fear and trembling.”3

While publishing was significant, as Hindmarsh notes, the primary space in which these stories were shared was the band meeting. Persons would gather in very small groups and share their lives with each other. Methodists would confess their sins with one another, share their triumphs with one another and then encourage and admonish one another to continue to pursue holiness of heart and life.

Shortly after Wesley’s death, the 1798 Book of Discipline of the Methodist Church in America indicated the value of such testimony that can take place within a band:

There is nothing we know of, which so much quickens the soul to a desire and expectation of the perfect love of God as this. For there little families of love, not only mutually weep and rejoice, and in everything sympathize with each other, as genuine friends, but each of them possesses a measure of ‘that unction of the Holy One,’ (1 John ii. 20.) which teaches all spiritual knowledge. And thus are they enabled to ‘build up themselves [and each other] on their most holy faith,’ Jude 20. and to ‘consider one another, to provoke unto love and good works,’ Heb. x. 24.4

In these groups, life was shared in its raw form – the ins, outs, ups, and downs of a person’s walk were shared and as the community heard the stories, they were inspired by the Holy Spirit to offer a word of encouragement, admonishment, or exhortation. In addition to these groups, bands would come together periodically for a “love feast” in which testimony to the amazing work of God would be given and the community would celebrate and be encouraged by the stories.

Have we lost the metric because God is not at work? I certainly do not think so. God is still in the life changing business and people are being transformed by the Holy Spirit just as they were in the days of John and Charles Wesley. However, I am afraid that we seldom hear their stories and that we have not done a good job of making space for people to tell their stories – warts and all. So how do we recover the lost metric of testimony?

Recovering the Metric of Testimony

Perhaps it is obvious, but for someone’s story to be heard, they must have the opportunity to share what God is doing in their lives. In some traditions and at certain times congregations have practiced testimony services or other gatherings in which people could tell their stories, similar to the love feasts of the early Methodists. A modern twist on the testimony service is using video to share stories of faith in a worship service. However, I am not certain that either of these is an adequate way of addressing the loss of testimony as a metric, and more importantly, as a spiritual practice. 

Fortunately, there are movements among Christians that are seeking to bring back, not the 18th century of John and Charles Wesley, but rather the spirit of the Methodist movement: a way of life marked by a commitment to grow in faith, a focus on spiritual disciplines, a passion to engage the mission of God in everyday life, and a covenant of life together in small groups of spiritual friends. One such initiative is the Inspire Movement which was begun in the United Kingdom in 2008.

The Inspire Movement is “an international network of Christians who are committed to developing mission-shaped discipleship in the leadership and life of the church.” Since its founding, Inspire has spread from England to Ireland, the United States and beyond. Inspire seeks to engage Christians in a way of life marked by longing for more of God, staying connected to God’s grace through spiritual disciplines, following God’s lead in mission and investing in spiritual friendships. Fellowship bands are the catalyst of this way of life and are groups where people share life deeply and help each other pursue this way of lifeInspire has developed missioner teams who work with churches and leaders to train and enable Christians to develop bands in their respective contexts. In the context of bands people share their stories of how God is working in their lives, and as they learn to tell their stories to each other, they are learning how to share this testimony with others in their church fellowship and beyond.

People need to tell their stories perhaps as much as people need to hear them. Focusing on numbers without the opportunity to share testimony of God’s work robs people of the opportunity to share what God is doing in their lives and prevents those who could hear the testimony from experiencing its impact. The recovery of the metric of testimony through community and bands could help individuals and congregations pursue a richer, deeper life of discipleship.

Jeff Rudy ~ Jesus Weeps, Our Tears to See

Among the sources I consult in sermon preparation, two I investigate for nearly every sermon are The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, which compiles writings from the fathers and mothers of the first few centuries of the Church, and John Wesley’s Explanatory Notes on the Bible. I’m considering adding a third – The Poetical Writings of (John and) Charles Wesley. It’s not that I go by the “three points and a poem” philosophy of sermon-writing, but often I do find times that there are meaningful lyrics from a hymn (sometimes well-known, sometimes more obscure) that speak to the point I aim to convey in a message.

When it came to the fifth Sunday in Lent in Year A of the lectionary cycle, with the Gospel lesson that tells the story of Lazarus’ death and Jesus bringing him back to life (John 11:1-45), I found myself drawn toward the way Jesus engaged the grieving community and expressed grief himself. It is more than a mere fascination with the theological questions that arise from the statement that “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). It is that grief has been hitting rather close to home and it feels as though the community I pastor has endured more than its fair share of untimely deaths. Because it is part of the time-tested liturgy of death and resurrection, I have said multiple times recently, “Jesus said, ‘I am resurrection and I am life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die’.” Words that come directly from this Gospel lesson. But the liturgy also says, “We come together in grief, acknowledging our human loss.” When I read and when I hear, “Jesus wept,” I see that Jesus comes together in grief with us, and acknowledges our human loss. As John Donne said, “If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less.”

Poetry speaks in ways that prose cannot, especially in times of grief. So I did some searching to see if Charles Wesley ever mused specifically on this passage, particularly about Jesus weeping. I knew that he occasionally used the phrase “vale of tears” in hymns. In one of my favorites of Charles’ meditations on the mystery of the Incarnation as revealed in his Hymns for the Nativity of Our Lord, he speaks to the empathetic nature of the Incarnation:

Glory be to God on high, And peace on earth descend;
God comes down: He bows the sky, And shows Himself our Friend!
God the’ invisible appears, God, the blest, the great I AM,
Sojourns in this vale of tears, And Jesus is His name.

I dug around some more and found one in a collection of hymns written for families. These hymns, like the psalms, come from or speak to different experiences – some quite specific, others more general – and they express a wide variety of feelings toward God, ranging from thanksgiving and adoration to supplication to bitter grief. The hymn I came upon that had a reference to Jesus weeping was under the heading of “For a Child in the Small-Pox.” In the midst of what would have been an agonizing time for the parents as they prayed through tears that God might bring healing to their child, Charles offered lyrics that help us to embrace this sort of grief and to not hold back in pouring out our hearts to God:

…Human tears may freely flow
Authorised by tears Divine,
Till Thine awful will we know,
Comprehend Thy whole design;
Jesus wept! and so may we:
Jesus, suffering all Thy will,
Felt the soft infirmity;
Feels His creatures sorrows still

Father of our patient Lord,
Strengthen us with Him to grieve.
Prostrate to receive Thy word,
All Thy counsel to receive:
Though we would the cup decline,
Govern’d by Thy will alone,
Ours we struggle to resign:
Thine, and only Thine, be done.

Life and death are in Thine hand:
In Thine hand our child we see
Waiting on Thy benign command,
Less beloved by us than Thee.
Need we then his life request?
Jesus understands our fears,
Reads a mother’s panting breast,
Knows the meaning of her tears.

Jesus blends them with His own,
Mindful of His suffering days:
Father, hear Thy pleading Son,
Son of Man for us He prays:
What for us He asks, bestow:
Ours He makes His own request:
Send us life or death; we know,
Life, or death from Thee is best.

There’s the internal struggle of agonizing desire for the child to be made well versus the feared need for resignation that it might not turn out the way the parents want. There is wonderment and humility expressed in the admission that this child is loved even more by God than by the parents themselves (“Less beloved by us than Thee”). But it all centers on the sympathy and empathy of the Incarnation – of Jesus’ familiarity with our fears, our hopes, and yes, our tears.

And then I dug just a bit deeper and looked in the collection for what I see as Charles’ version of the Explanatory Notes – only in hymnic, or poetic, form: Hymns on the Four Gospels. And here he pictured it so beautifully in what I would call “a hopeful grief.”

And now, if you’ll allow me to step onto a soapbox, I think that’s Paul’s point when he told the Thessalonians to “not grieve as those who have no hope.” He wasn’t telling them not to grieve at all. Some must think that he did because I see those poems on the back of funeral announcements sometime that just make me want to scream – something like “Don’t cry for me, for now I’m free…” It’s sentimentalized in the popular notion that humans become angels when we die (not a biblical concept). It’s conveyed in the statement that, “it was just their time” or, “they’re not really there/that’s just a shell/that body isn’t her (or him).”

To rebut this, I am reminded of the wisdom of a boy, who when told that the body in the casket isn’t where his grandfather was, said in reply, “What do you mean, that’s not my grandfather? Those hands cared for me. Those are the arms that took me up and hugged me. Those are the lips that spoke to me; the eyes that searched for me; the chest on which I fell asleep, knowing I was safe in his love. Everything I have ever known of my grandfather was through this body.” To tell someone not to cry, however well-intended it might be, is to deny them the dignity that even Jesus embraced – “Jesus wept” or “Jesus began to weep” or “Jesus burst into tears.”

However voluntary or involuntary it might have been, we see that Jesus grieved. And here’s the irony – he grieved with the likely knowledge (or at least confidence) in what was about to happen – Lazarus made alive again. Why, then, does Jesus cry? To grieve with us – as Charles Wesley surmised – to see our tears: that death is real. And yet, hope lives. That’s the paradox. Our hope begins, mysteriously, in the tears of a weeping Lord. A grief that hopes. Here is Charles’ take. (If you want to sing this, it fits well with several well-known tunes quite nicely, including: Love Divine, All Loves Excelling, Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus, What a Friend We Have in Jesus, and Hymn of Promise to name a few.)

Jesus weeps, our tears to see! Feels the soft infirmity;
Feels, whene’er a friend we mourn, From our bleeding bosom torn:
Let him still in spirit groan, Make our every grief his own,
Till we all triumphant rise, Called to meet him in the skies.


Matt Sigler ~ Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending

This meditation on a classic Advent hymn by Dr. Matt Sigler comes from our festive archives. Enjoy.

Last week, while most of us were still engorged on leftovers from Thanksgiving, the church began a new year with the season of Advent. Many congregations marked the season by lighting of the first candle in the Advent wreath and, perhaps, with a few other changes in the liturgy. Some sang Advent hymns, though many immediately began with songs about the Nativity. Yet Advent is primarily about looking through the baby in the manger to see Christ the King coming on the clouds in glory. The problem for Methodists is that, for decades, we did not have a single hymn in the Methodist hymnal that explicitly referenced the Lord’s physical return.

Nolan Harmon, a Methodist bishop who served on several hymnal committees, recalls the debate that ensued in the 1930 hymnal commission about Charles Wesley’s hymn, “Lo! He Comes with Clouds, Descending.” In spite of Harmon’s argument that “the New Testament does teach that the Lord will come again—as does the Creed” the hymn was voted out.[1] Speaking against the hymn, one committee member argued that the final verse, which in the original version ends “Jah, Jehovah, Everlasting God come down,” was “the invocation of an old Hebrew God, and doesn’t belong with us.”[2] Reflecting the predominance of liberal theology of the day, the committee also struck out other references to the second coming of Christ. Another Wesley hymn, “Rejoice, the Lord is King,” was included in the hymnal, but with the traditional closing line “Jesus the judge shall come” omitted.[3] So for nearly thirty years, Methodists had zero hymns in their hymnal that spoke of the sure and certain return of Christ.

The Second Advent

In contrast to our current hymnal, which has an entire section devoted to the “Return and Reign of the Lord,” the 1932 hymnal contains a fairly ambiguous section entitled, “The Everliving Christ.” Similarly, Advent and Nativity were conflated into one section in the hymnal. In practice, this is often the case today. People are quite comfortable with the meek and mild baby in the manger; but to speak of a returning King with fire in His eyes and a sword in His hand, who comes to judge the living and the dead and to set all things right, is less popular. Add to this a cultural context that continues to extend the “Christmas” season for commercial reasons, and the Church finds it nearly impossible to speak of the second Advent of Christ in the weeks leading to Christmas. In our silence have we capitulated to the dominant culture?

Lo! He Comes With Clouds, Descending

What was considered passé by the 1930 hymnal commission and by many today is the great hope for those of us who hold to classic Christianity. So, while we can and should sing of Christ’s return throughout the year, Advent presents a key opportunity to declare with clarity this crucial doctrine in our faith. And as Wesleyans we have a gem in Charles’ hymn, “Lo! He Comes With Clouds, Descending.” Here is a quick look at the hymn:

Lo! He comes with clouds descending,
Once for favored sinners slain!
Thousand, thousand saints attending,
Swell the triumph of his train:
Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
God appears, on earth to reign!

In this first stanza, Wesley is clear that Christ will physically return in glory. The imagery of thousands upon thousands of saints following in procession is particularly evocative.

Every eye shall now behold him
Robed in dreadful majesty,
Those who set at nought and sold him,
Pierced, and nailed him to the tree,
Deeply wailing, deeply wailing,
Shall the true Messiah see.

All will see the glorified Christ, as this lyrical paraphrase of Revelation 1:7 proclaims. It will be a time of judgment for those who have rejected Him.

The dear tokens of his passion
Still his dazzling body bears,
Cause of endless exultation
To his ransomed worshippers;
With what rapture, with what rapture,
Gaze we on those glorious scars!

For the redeemed, however, this occasion is one of unfathomable joy. The wounds that Christ still bears in His glorified body will be the inspiration for “endless exultation.”

Yea, Amen! Let all adore thee,
High on Thine eternal throne!
Savior, take the power and glory,
Claim the kingdom for Thine own,
O come quickly, o come quickly,
Everlasting God, come down.

Having spent the first three verses depicting the scene of Christ’s return, the final verse centers on the basic cry of the Church which is amplified during Advent, “Come, Lord Jesus!”

A Contemporary Expression?

The standard hymn tune for “Lo! He Comes With Clouds, Descending,” “Helmsley,” works nicely with the text. Some congregations, however, may find the tune difficult to sing. I have found that the hymn tune “St. Thomas (Webbe)” also works well. In fact, I have used a modern arrangement of “St. Thomas” (with bass, drums, keys, and guitar) while inserting the chorus of Chris Tomlin’s “How Great is Our God” in between the stanzas of “Lo! He Comes…” The point is that tune and style need not limit congregations in reclaiming this incredible hymn.


If corporate worship should connect-the-dots—or tell the story of what God has done, and will do, for us in Christ—then worship is woefully incomplete when we fail to proclaim that Christ will come again. As Wesleyans we have in our lyrical heritage one of the best hymns on this topic in “Lo! He Comes with Clouds, Descending.” Consider this an appeal, then, to reclaim this hymn for the church during this season of Advent. My hope is that what was once lost in the Methodist church for thirty years will become a standard song in the future.


[1] Nolan B. Harmon, “Creating Official Methodist Hymnals,” Methodist History  16 (July 1978): 239.

[2] Ibid.

[3] (Hymn #171, The Methodist Hymnal 1932)

Mark Trotter ~ Night Moves

The hymn we have just sung, “Come, O Thou Traveler Unknown,” is based on the Old Testament lesson read for us this morning. It was written by Charles Wesley, the brother of John Wesley. Charles Wesley was a prolific writer of hymns. He wrote more than 6,000 hymns. He put the great affirmations of our Christian belief, and particularly those that John Wesley felt were important, and put them into hymns. Other Christian traditions recite their faith with a creed. The Methodists have always sung their faith with hymns, Wesley’s hymns.

Isaac Watts, perhaps the greatest hymn writer ever, was a contemporary of Charles Wesley. He said that this was Wesley’s finest hymn. It was also John Wesley’s favorite. There is a wonderful story associated with this hymn. Two weeks after Charles Wesley died, John was preaching in London. In his sermon he read out the first line of this hymn. When he came to the phrase, “My company before is gone, and I am left alone with thee,” he thought of his brother, Charles, who had gone before him to the other shore, and was now in heaven. He stopped, and put his hands over his face, and wept. The whole congregation wept with him as they remembered Charles, the great hymn writer of the Methodist movement. This hymn is one of his best.

It is a wonderful hymn, and it is Wesley’s words that I want us to look at this morning. He tells in this hymn the story of Jacob’s wrestling with the stranger at the River Jabbok. Last week we looked at the story of “Jacob’s Ladder,” as it is called, the dream that Jacob had at Bethel, where God gave him the blessing that he had struggled so hard to achieve all of his life. In order to get that blessing Jacob deceived his twin brother, Esau, and lied to his father, Isaac. We saw also in that story that his name “Jacob” means “the striver,” and how all of his life he had struggled and was driven from the moment of his birth. In fact, even before his birth, the story of Jacob says, when he was in the womb, he and his twin brother, Esau, struggled and competed, fought to be number one. When they were born, Jacob was holding on to Esau’s heel. He was named Jacob, “The Striver.”

As this text begins he has everything he has ever wanted and more. Which is the pattern with “Jacobs,” they often succeed in this life, and sometimes spectacularly. Just as often, they will lose it all, and then get it back again.

We wish the story were written differently because Jacob is not the most admirable character. His character is not the most exemplary. We wish these biblical stories were written in a way to say that that kind of behavior does not prosper. But the Bible is honest, always honest, always realistic about our human life. The fact about life is that “Jacobs” generally get what they want, and they will use any means available to get it. They don’t always break the law, but they will stretch it, push it as far as they can.

Jacob’s main offense was against his brother Esau. He tricked him. But Esau was a fool, and a fool and his birthright are soon parted. Jacob knew what Esau’s weakness was. “Jacobs” go after that, manipulate it, use it in order to get their own gain. And it worked. But Esau is now angry. He swears revenge against his brother Jacob. Jacob flees.

The first night of his flight, you remember, he has that wonderful dream at Bethel, where God blesses him and says, “I will be with you wherever you go…and I will not leave you until I have done for you what I have promised.” With that blessing he goes to Padan-Aram, to his mother’s ancestral home. There he continues to prosper.

We are not looking at that story this year in the cycle, but it is the third story in the cycle. It’s a wonderful story where Jacob meets his equal, his future father-in-law, a man named Laban, who is as devious and has as questionable a character as Jacob does. The story of Jacob and Laban is sort of the Olympic Games of dirty tricks. They are both world-class tricksters. Jacob wins that contest, too.

Jacob leaves Padan-Aram a wealthy man with two wives, Leah and Rachel, who are Laban’s daughters. He has eleven children as he leaves (he will have one more son), and heads for home. He leaves with most of Laban’s cattle and sheep, and his servants as well, all of which he has won from his father-in-law.

He is on his way home now to be reconciled with Esau, his brother. He has experienced what so many people experience who are tremendously successful. I notice this about them. They have the talent, cleverness, skill, energy and determination to compete and win in any area of life. They end up with all of the rewards of that striving, and, indeed, fit the image of success in our culture.

But after they have gained everything, they begin to think about all that they have lost, especially the relationships they have sacrificed in order to gain material reward. At a certain point in their lives, usually middle age, but if they are tremendously successful, it comes earlier than that, after they have gained the whole world, they long for a relationship, usually with one person, more than anything else. Reconciliation, that is what they want, with that person from whom they are estranged: a sibling, a parent, or a former spouse, or a friend, someone they haven’t spoken to for years.

Jacob is like that as our text begins this morning. He is going home to get the one thing that he lost and now wants more than anything else, reconciliation with his brother.

The caravan carrying all of his possessions, and his family, comes to the River Jabbok. On the far side of the river is Esau’s land. He sends scouts ahead as peace envoys, to meet Esau and to ask Esau if Jacob can come into his land. When the scouts return, they tell Jacob that Esau is heading for the river with four hundred troops. Jacob divides his family and his possessions into groups, and sends them in different directions so that if Esau attacks, some will survive. Then he sends his cattle and his sheep with some servants across the river to meet Esau once again, to offer him peace offerings.

Now Jacob is all alone, at the River Jabbok. “My company before is gone, and I am left alone with thee.”

Perhaps he remembered that night, a long time ago, at the beginning of his exile, when he saw the ladder to heaven, and the angels ascending and descending, and God speaking to him, reassuring him, and blessing him. He longed now to have that same experience again. He wanted from God a sign, a blessing, an assurance, that everything is going to be okay, that the charmed life he has lived up to this time is going to continue, and God will be with him and bless all that he has done. “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you. The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.” That is what he wants, that peace.

Instead, out of the darkness, a stranger jumps him, throws him to the ground. These two bodies struggle in the darkness against each other. All night long they wrestle. The strength of the stranger is terrible. Jacob, the mightiest, the cleverest of men, is having difficulty holding his own. Who is this stranger who has come to him out of the night?

Just before dawn, Jacob starts to win. At least it seems that way. He holds the stranger in a grip. The stranger holds to him. The stranger then strikes him in the hip, dislocates his hip. From that Jacob will limp the rest of his life. The stranger says, “Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.” Jacob says, “Bless me, and I will let you go.”

Now we know what Jacob knows, that this stranger he is wrestling is God. He is wrestling with God. It may be a stranger, it may be a man, it may be an angel, we don’t know. But Jacob knows who it really is. Jacob is at last wrestling with God, holding on now in desperation, crying to God, “Bless me. Give me a blessing.”

The stranger says, “What is your name?” “My name is Jacob.”

“You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and mortals, and have prevailed.”

Then Jacob asks the stranger, “What is your name?” He would not answer, for to know somebody’s name is to know all there is to know about him, and God remains a mystery. We do not know all about God. So Jacob does not learn anymore about God from this encounter than he knew before. Nothing has changed, except Jacob. Jacob has changed. Jacob is no longer Jacob, “the striver.” He is now “Israel,” the one who has striven with God, and is changed.

This is an incredible story. It is one of the richest stories in the Bible, and one of the richest stories in the treasury of human literature. For Jews, Jacob is the father of the race. His new name, “Israel,” is their name. His sons, he has twelve sons, will be the progenitors of the twelve tribes of Israel, so this is the story of the origin of the Jewish people. All Jews are sons and daughters of Jacob. This is Israel’s story.

But it is also our story. This is every man’s and every woman’s story. You can see yourself in this story. These stories are called “archetypes,” where you can see yourself in the story, and where you can read the story to learn about yourself.

When I came back to this story of Jacob wrestling the stranger at the River Jabbok, I saw something that I had never noticed before. That is, Jacob is like Prometheus, in the Greek myth. Prometheus stole the fire from heaven and brought it down to human beings so that we could be like gods.

The meaning of the Promethean myth is that there is something in us that wants to be like God. There is something in us that will not be content with the limitations that are placed upon all human beings. There is something in us as human beings, in fact, that causes us to try to transcend these limitations.

The Olympics originated in ancient Greece, in the land of Prometheus. They were religious festivals, really, held in honor of the gods on Olympus. That is why they were called the Olympian games. In the contests the athletes strove for perfection. They tried to be the best that it is humanly possible to be. In fact, they even tried to transcend human limitations with athletic achievements.

That has always been the spirit of the Olympics. Even today, young people, some very young, fourteen year old girls, pushing, pushing, pushing, trying to achieve perfection in what they do. You notice they are scored against the standard of perfection. They are judged by whether or not they come up to a standard of perfection. It is just part of being human to strive for that excellence, to try and be as great as you can be.

You see the same thing in the story of Creation in Genesis. No sooner are Adam and Eve created as human beings than they start to be something more than human beings. It happened immediately. The same day as the Creation, they strive to be more than human beings, to transcend the limits that God has placed upon them. They try to be like God. God gives them the rules of the Garden of Eden. He says they can do anything they want, except eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for that property belongs to God alone.

So what do they do? Immediately they do what Prometheus did, only it’s an apple this time, and not fire. But it is the same thing. They tried to be like God. They were punished, like Prometheus. They were exiled from Paradise; Prometheus chained to a mountain in the Caucasus. Adam blames Eve, “She made me do it!” Eve blames the serpent, “He beguiled me!” But they are both to blame. It is both their fault.

But in another sense, it is not their fault. If seeking to be the greatest that we can be is part of what it means to be human, then we are going to try to reach as high as we can. In fact, that’s the part of human achievement that we celebrate. It is the way we raise our children. We tell our children, “You be whoever you want to be. You climb as high as you can.” That’s what it means to be a fully realized human being. To know that you have within you unlimited possibility. To be successful in life is to be a person who has striven to achieve all that is possible for them to be.

That is what Jacob did all his life. Then he came up against the limitation at the River Jabbok, and he wrestled with God. Like Prometheus, he was defying the gods. Like Adam and Eve, he was disobeying God. He tried to do that. Jacob tried to defeat God. Only Jacob’s story is different. Jacob loses. He finally accepts his humility, and asks for God’s blessing.

The meaning of the Jacob story is that our human limitation is not a condemnation. God has not created us to strive for the highest only to frustrate us. God has created us for relationship with him. We don’t have to storm heaven to get a blessing, all we have to do is confess who we are, and God will come to us.

The word for that moment in Christian piety is “surrender.” In this story we can see what surrender really means. It means confessing that the one thing that you cannot get by yourself is God’s grace. That surrender is not the end of your life. Jacob discovered that. It was the beginning of his new life. God did not destroy Jacob. God checked him, then checkmated him, and then held-on to Jacob until he could admit who he really was, and surrender. Surrender is not the end of life. Surrender to God is the way to begin your life.

Nikos Kazantzakis, a contemporary Greek writer, tells a story. A young man visited a monk on one of those islands on the Aegean Sea, those islands that come out of the ocean like a big rock.

The monks had built their cells on the face of the rock, lived there alone. A young man climbed up to the cell of the monk and asked, “Father, do you still wrestle with the devil?”

The monk answered, “Not anymore. I have grown old, and the devil has grown old with me. He no longer has the strength. Now I wrestle with God.”

“With God?”, the man asked, “You wrestle with God? Do you hope to win?”

“No,” he said, “I hope to lose.”

Matt Sigler ~ Reclaiming a Vision of the Communion of Saints in Worship

Confession: I’ve always had a bit of a morbid vein in my personality. Not like, Sylvia Plath morbid—I’ve just always been very aware of the passing of time and the fragility of life. As a Christian my hope is anchored in the sure and certain return of Christ, the final resurrection, and a God who is making all things new. While these truths have sustained me in my moments of deepest despair, I often wonder if my evangelical upbringing would have benefited from a more robust appreciation for the Communion of Saints as I wrestled in thinking about time, separation from those departed, and the hope that is ours in Christ. For certain, concerns about if we “pray to” or “with” the saints are worth consideration (I’m not going to try to tackle them in this post). What I do want to suggest is that we would do well to consider a richer understanding of the relationship between the Church triumphant (in heaven) and the Church militant (on earth) in our worship.

From very early on Christians buried their dead near their places of worship. Where others placed their dead outside of cities and avoided such sites, Christians often celebrated the anniversaries of the death of their martyrs with the Lord’s Supper. Oftentimes this celebration was held at the place where the martyr was buried. Soon, many churches included the bones of the martyrs within the church building. Since death was not the final word about our bodily existence, it didn’t need to be something fearful. Moreover, Christians understood that to be absent from the body was to be present with the Lord and there was no place where the Lord was more present than in the community gathered for worship. The understanding was that in Christ all—including the Church triumphant—are one. This is the belief conveyed in the lyrics of the hymn “For All the Saints”:

O blest communion,
Fellowship divine! We feebly struggle,
They in glory shine;
All are one in Thee,
For all are Thine. Alleluia, Alleluia!

Before we’re tempted to think this understanding of the Church triumphant and Church militant present in worship is something foreign to the Wesleyan tradition, consider this hymn written by Charles:

Come let us join our friends above
That have obtained the prize, 
And on the eagle-wings of love 
To joy celestial rise; 
Let all the saints terrestrial sing
With those to glory gone,
For all the servants of our King
In earth and heaven are one.

Charles Wesley makes clear that when the Church gathers for worship we on earth join our song “with those to glory gone” in praise to the Lamb on his throne.

Admittedly, this all seemed rather speculative and esoteric to me until I experienced the loss of beloved family members. While I grew up believing that angels somehow joined with us when we gathered for worship, I never considered that the “cloud of witnesses” might also be singing too. In fact, it’s actually the other way around: the Church on earth is invited to join in the eternal worship when we gather together. This has become for me one of the most marvelous visions of what it means to worship together.

Embracing the full presence of the Church, triumphant and militant, in worship is much more than a coping mechanism. Neither is it some sci-fi fantasy (like Anakin Skywalker’s ghost at the end of Return of the Jedi) played out in our imagination. It actually is a concept that enriches our worship. If, indeed, Christian worship is the place where the Church triumphant and the Church militant meet; where we get a taste of the glorious hope that is ours in Christ; where we join in the song of heaven with all the saints, the martyrs, and the hosts of heaven, how should that perspective shape the way we worship when we gather together?


Featured image courtesy Robert Thomas on Unsplash.

Ellsworth Kalas ~ Jesus, the Name High Over All

Our twenty-first century world thinks of itself as the Graphic Age. We create pictures so easily and transmit them so immediately that some argue that words are almost unnecessary.

Our culture may therefore be somewhat upset to realize that we have no pictures of Jesus. Of course we have thousands — probably millions! — of artists’ conceptions, but the best that can be said for these images is that they demonstrate the expanse of artistic imagination, and that there is something very beautiful in the tendency of these artistic renderings to reflect their ethnic sources, so that we have Italian, Flemish, Scandinavian, American, Oriental, and African images of Jesus, to name just a few.

But in truth the Scriptures give us no physical description of Jesus, unless perhaps we think of the prophet Isaiah; and that picture has more to do with our human reaction to our Lord’s person rather than his actual physical features. We don’t know if Jesus was short, tall, or average, whether slender or muscular. The Bible doesn’t tell us the color of his eyes or the texture of his hair.

But we do know his name. The apostles knew it, as Peter made emphatically clear at Pentecost when he challenged the crowd by declaring that he was speaking for “Jesus of Nazareth” (Acts 2:22). Indeed, the apostles were so sure of this name that Peter and John dared to say that “there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). The enemies of the faith knew the name, too, and knew that this name was the primary issue; thus after flogging the apostles, “they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus.” I get the feeling that the apostles found this legal order amusing, because “they rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name” (Acts 5:40-41). And of course they only spoke Jesus’ name more, and spoke it more boldly.

So it’s not surprising that the first generation of Methodists sang the name of Jesus. I venture that none of those hymns sings it better than a hymn of Charles Wesley’s which first appeared in 1749, in “Hymns and Sacred Poems.” At that time it was titled, “After preaching in a church.” Here’s the story. Charles reported in his Journal on 6th August, 1744, that he had preached in a small church at Laneast in Cornwall, urging the people to repent of their drunkenness and be converted. Then Charles asked, “Who is he that pleads for the devil?” One man stood up to challenge Wesley, and Wesley rose to the occasion with power and vehemence.

We understand, then, what Wesley meant when he wrote “Jesus! The name high over all, / in hell or earth or sky; / angels and mortals prostrate fall, / and devils fear and fly.” A nineteenth century British historian noted that “several well-authenticated instances are known” of this hymn “having been used by godly persons to exorcise the devil.” Wesley said that this name is dear to sinners because “it scatters all their guilty fear, / and turns their hell to heaven.”

We ought to sing it more! Sing it, indeed, until we re-discover the power of this Name. Sing it until, as Charles Wesley urged, “Happy, if with my latest breath/ I may but gasp his name, / preach him to all and cry in death, / ‘Behold, behold the Lamb!’”